The car came to a stop. I looked to the right and I looked to the left, and as far as my eye could see were little jagged teeth planted upright in the grass. Knowing there were more white monuments on the other side of every hill around me added to the weight of the moment.
I stepped out of the car and my sandals sank into the wet grass and mud. It had rained buckets just an hour before, but the sky was clear now. The rain made the colors around me pop: the green grass, the blue sky, the white tombstones, and the flowers and mementos left by loved ones.
My family skittered ahead in search of a specific friend on this hillside of comrades, but my steps were slowed as the names on the tombstones whispered to my compassion: Richard. James. Bruno. John. Patricia.
A bird landed on her tombstone and I stopped to watch him tweet and flit about, as if this field of stones was like any other random field.
But this one isn't like any other.
The names kept pulling at my memories. Edwin. Carl. Robert. Don't I know someone by that name? What if this field were full of MY friends instead?
Oh, but these are my friends. These are my brothers and sisters, my human companions in this world, and my national compatriots. These are the ones who stood for me, fought for me, endured training schools for the "privilege" of standing knee-deep in a muddy field or pushing forms and paperwork through the system (if they were the soldiers who protected and processed in the administration of office duties).
I'm not going to over-romanticize and pretend every grave in the fields of Arlington holds a soldier who died on the battlefield. Some soldiers who died in battle never made it home to American soil, and are buried in Normandy and Iwo Jima and throughout the world.
We have 147 national cemeteries across America, where our brave fallen find their final rest. But these cemeteries also cradle their spouses and some children. These graves hold the soldiers who returned home from battle, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. These graves also hold people who died from other causes, like my brother's grave in Louisville's Cave Hill National Cemetery. He didn't die in a battle for his country; he died in a battle for his life, against cancer.
I stood knee-deep in the sea of Arlington's graves, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of graves around me.
It's easy to look at the tombstones and think of them as things, simple stone markers in freshly-cut grass. I refused to detach from the moment, and started imagining the people these markers memorialized. It was easy, once I started looking around and seeing trinkets and tokens left by the people who grieve for the dead.
I read a poem left at Chris Campbell's grave. It was written as a tribute to his mother, given to her just a few days prior, on Mother's Day. The thought of losing my own son and having to spend Mother's Day at his grave in Arlington brought tears to my eyes.
My family caught up to me then and my brother-in-law, Wally, pointed out the graves of some of his friends. He told us about Heath, and his personality.
Then my sister, Mary, pointed out her friend Jerry's grave nearby. Jerry died during training preps for Afghanistan, and left behind four sons and his wife, Molly. Molly is still friends with Mary and their families remain close.
It's hard to visit the grave of a close friend when all that's left is a cold stone to represent a life that was vibrant and full.
The heaviness I felt in the fields of Arlington was only outweighed by the sense of honor and overwhelming gratitude I felt - and continue to feel - for the people who paid the heaviest sacrifice for my freedom.
I owe a debt I can never repay. And on this Memorial Day, may we remember we ALL do.
"There is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13, New Living Translation)